Birds of the Same Feather Tweet Together. Bayesian Ideal Point Estimation Using Twitter Data *


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1 Birds of the Same Feather Tweet Together. Bayesian Ideal Point Estimation Using Twitter ata * Pablo Barberá Forthcoming in Political Analysis Abstract Politicians and citizens increasingly engage in political conversations on social media outlets such as Twitter. In this paper I show that the structure of the social networks in which they are embedded can be a source of information about their ideological positions. Under the assumption that social networks are homophilic, I develop a Bayesian Spatial Following model that considers ideology as a latent variable, whose value can be inferred by examining which politics actors each user is following. is method allows us to estimate ideology for more actors than any existing alternative, at any point in time and across many polities. I apply this method to estimate ideal points for a large sample of both elite and mass public Twitter users in the US and five European countries. e estimated positions of legislators and political parties replicate conventional measures of ideology. e method is also able to successfully classify individuals who state their political preferences publicly and a sample of users matched with their party registration records. To illustrate the potential contribution of these estimates, I examine the extent to which online behavior during the 2012 US presidential election campaign is clustered along ideological lines. * I would like to thank Jonathan Nagler, Joshua Tucker, Nick Beauchamp, Neal Beck, Ken Benoit, ichard Bonneau, Patrick Egan, Adam Harris, John Jost, Franziska Keller, Michael Laver, Alan Potter, Gaurav Sood, Chris Tausanovitch, Shana Warren, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and discussions. e present work has been supported by the National Science Foundation (Award # ) and the La Caixa Fellowship Program.
2 1 Introduction Measuring politicians and voters policy positions is a relevant, yet complex, scientific endeavor. Studies of electoral behavior, government formation, and party competition require systematic information on the placement of key political actors and voters on the relevant policy dimensions. e development of methods to estimate such positions, usually in a single latent dimension characterized as ideology (Poole and osenthal, 2007; Clinton, Jackman and ivers, 2004; Shor, Berry and McCarty, 2010; Bonica, 2013b; Jessee, 2009), represents one of the most important methodological contributions to political science in the past two decades. However, most studies estimate ideal points for legislators only. When the analysis also includes voters, it is done at the expense of strong bridging assumptions (Jessee, 2009), or only for selfselected population groups (Bonica, 2014). ere is also little work on crossnational ideological estimation (Lo, Proksch and Gschwend, 2013). Most importantly, given the sparse nature of the data (rollcall votes or contributions) and its costly collection (survey data), current measurement methods generate ideal points that are essentially static in the shortrun. In this paper I show that using Twitter networks as a source of information about policy positions has the potential to solve these difficulties. Twitter has become one of the most important communication arenas in daily politics. Initially conceived as a website to share personal status updates, it now has more than 200 million monthly active users worldwide, 1 including 18% of all online Americans. 2 One distinct characteristic of this online social network is the presence of not only ordinary citizens, but also political actors. Virtually every legislator, political party, and candidate in developed democracies has an active Twitter account. Independent of their offline identities, they all interact within the same symbolic framework, using similar language in messages of identical length. Most importantly, they are embedded in a common social network. is opens the possibility of estimating ideological positions of all users on a common scale, which would allow for meaningful comparisons of voters and legislators ideal points. 1 Source: Twitter s Official Twitter Account, ecember 18, [link] 2 Source: e Pew esearch Center s Internet & American Life Project, August [link] 2
3 e use of Twitter data presents three additional advantages over other sources of information about preferences. First, the large number of active users on this social networking site can be exploited to estimate highly precise ideal points for politicians, if we consider users as experts who are rating elites through their decisions of who to follow. Second, the structure of this network is far from static, which can facilitate the estimation of highly granular dynamic ideal points in real time. ird, it is possible to link Twitter profiles to other data through name identification, which provides interesting ways to examine differences between private and public political behavior. is series of advantages comes at the expense of one important limitation. Twitter users are not a representative sample of the voting age population. is can represent a difficulty in the context of studies about mass attitudes and behavior, but not for the method I present in this paper. Citizens who discuss politics on Twitter are more likely to be educated and politically interested, and that makes them a particularly useful source of information about elites ideology. is method relies on the characteristics of the social ties that Twitter users develop with each other and, in particular, with the political actors (politicians, think tanks, news outlets, and others) they decide to follow. I argue that valid policy positions for ordinary users and political actors can be inferred from the structure of the following links across these two sets of Twitter users. e decision to follow is considered a costly signal that provides information about Twitter users perceptions of both their ideological location and that of political accounts. Unlike other studies that estimate political ideology using social media data (Conover et al., 2010; King, Orlando and Sparks, 2011; Boutet et al., 2012), I am able to estimate ideal points, with standard errors, on a continuous scale, for all types of active Twitter users, across different countries. To validate the method, I estimate the ideological positions of legislators, political parties, and a large sample of active users in the US and five European countries. eir estimated ideal points replicate conventional measures of ideology. is method represents an additional measurement tool that can be used to estimate ideology, an important quantity of interest in political science, for a larger set of political actors and individuals than any other method before. To illustrate a potential use of these estimates, I examine the extent to which online behavior during the 2012 US presidential election campaign is clustered 3
4 along ideological lines, finding support for the socalled echochamber theory and high levels of political polarization at the mass level. 2 Ideal Point Estimation Using Twitter ata 2.1 Previous Studies ere is a limited but increasing literature on the measurement of users attributes in social media, particularly in the field of computer science. espite ideology being one of the key predictors of political behavior, its measurement through social media data has only been examined in a handful of studies. 3 ese studies have relied on three different sources of information to infer Twitter users ideology. First, Conover et al. (2010) focus on the structure of the conversation on Twitter: who replies to whom, and who retweets whose messages. Using a community detection algorithm, they find two segregated political communities in the US, which they identify as emocrats and epublicans. Second, Boutet et al. (2012) argue that the number of tweets referring to a British political party sent by each user before the 2010 elections are a good predictor of his or her party identification. However, Pennacchiotti and Popescu (2011) and Al Zamal, Liu and uths (2012) have found that the inference accuracy of these two sources of information is outperformed by a machine learning algorithm based on a user s social network properties. In particular, their results show that the network of friends (who each individual follows on Twitter) allows us to infer political orientation even in the absence of any information about the user. Similarly, the only political science study (to my knowledge) that aims at measuring ideology (King, Orlando and Sparks, 2011) uses this type of information. ese authors apply a datareduction technique to the complete network of followers of the U.S. Congress, and find that their estimates of the ideology of its members are highly correlated 3 Ideology is defined here as the main policy dimension that articulates political competition: a line whose le end is understood to reflect an extremely liberal position and whose right end corresponds to extreme conservatism. (Bafumi et al., 2005, p.171) Each individual s ideal point or policy preference corresponds to their position on this scale. See also Poole and osenthal (1997, 2007). 4
5 with estimates based on rollcall votes. From a theoretical perspective, the use of network properties to measure ideology has several advantages in comparison to the alternatives. Textbased measures need to solve the potentially severe problem of disambiguation caused by contractions designed to fit the 140character limit, and are vulnerable to the phenomenon of content injection. As Conover et al. (2010) show, hashtags are o en used incorrectly for political reasons: politicallymotivated individuals o en annotate content with hashtags whose primary audience would not likely choose to see such information ahead of time. is reduces the efficiency of this measure and results in bias if content injection is more frequent among one side of the political spectrum. Similarly, conversation analysis is sensitive to two common situations: the use of retweets for ironic purposes, whose purpose is to criticize or debate with another user. As a result, it is hard to characterize the emerging communities, and whether they overlap with the ideological composition of the electorate, or even if they are stable over time. In conclusion, a critical reading of the literature suggests the need to develop new, networkbased measures of political orientation. It is also necessary to improve the existing statistical methods that have been applied. Pennacchiotti and Popescu (2011) and Al Zamal, Liu and uths (2012) focus only on classifying users, but most political science applications require a continuous measure of ideology. In order to draw correct inferences, it is also important to indicate the uncertainty of the estimates. Without these, it is not possible to make inferences about their rankordering, for example. Most importantly, none of these studies explores the possibility of placing ordinary citizens and legislators on a common scale or whether this method would generate valid ideology estimates outside of the US context. ese three limitations of the existing studies justify the need to develop a new method that can provide reliable and valid estimates (and standard errors) of Twitter users ideology on a continuous scale. at is precisely the main contribution of this paper. 5
6 2.2 Assumptions In this paper I demonstrate that valid ideal point estimates of individual Twitter users and political actors with a Twitter account can be derived from the structure of the following links between these two sets of users. In order to do so, I develop a Bayesian spatial model of Twitter users following behavior. e key assumption of this model is that Twitter users prefer to follow politicians whose position on the latent ideological dimension are similar to theirs. is assumption is equivalent to that of spatial voting models (see e.g. Enelow and Hinich, 1984). I consider following decisions to be costly signals about users perceptions of both their ideological location and that of political accounts. Such cost can take two forms. If the content of the messages users are exposed to as a result of their following decisions challenges their political views, it can create cognitive dissonance. Second, given the fastpaced nature of Twitter, it also creates opportunity costs, since it reduces the likelihood of being exposed to other messages, assuming the amount of time a user spends on Twitter is constant. In other words, these decisions provide information about how social media users decide to allocate a scarce resource their attention. While obviously less costly than campaign contributions or votes in a legislature, the assumption behind this model is similar in nature to that justifying how donations and rollcall votes can be scaled onto a latent ideological dimension (Bonica, 2014; Poole and osenthal, 2007). Two additional arguments support the notion that following decisions can be informative about ideology. First, the vast body of research about homophily in personal interactions can easily be extended to online social networks such as Twitter. As McPherson, SmithLovin and Cook (2001) theorize, individuals tend to be embedded in homogenous networks with regard to many sociodemographic and behavioral traits. Multiple studies have observed patterns of homophilic segregation consistent with these models in networks of interactions between Twitter users (Wu et al., 2011; Conover et al., 2012). However, Twitter is not only an online social network it is also a news media (Kwak et al., 2010). From this perspective, we should also consider the existing literature on the selective expo 6
7 sure theory (Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet, 1944; Bryant and Miron, 2004; Stroud, 2008; Iyengar and Hahn, 2009) that argues that individuals exhibit a preference for opinionreinforcing political information and that they systematically avoid opinion challenges. Given the dynamic nature of social media, its large size, and individuals finite ability to process incoming information (Oken Hodas and Lerman, 2012), we should expect Twitter users to maximize the value of their online experience by choosing to follow political actors who can provide information that can be of higher value to them. 2.3 e Statistical Model e statistical model I employ is similar in nature to latent space models applied to social networks (Hoff, a ery and Handcock, 2002), itemresponse theory models (see e.g. Linden and Hamlbleton, 1997), and other methods that scale rollcall votes or campaign contributions into latent political dimensions (Poole and osenthal, 2007; Clinton, Jackman and ivers, 2004; Bonica, 2014), but adapted to allow the estimation of ideal points for hundreds of thousands of individuals. Suppose that each Twitter user i {1,..., n} is presented with a choice between following or not following another target user j {1,..., m}, where j is a political actor who has a Twitter account. 4 Let y ij = 1 if user i decides to follow user j, and y ij = 0 otherwise. For the reasons explained above, I expect this decision to be a function of the squared Euclidean distance in the latent ideological dimension 5 between user i and j: γ θ i ϕ j 2, where θ i is the ideal point of Twitter user i, ϕ j is the ideal point of Twitter user j, and γ is a normalizing constant. To this core model, I add two additional parameters, α j and β i. e former measures the popularity of user j. is parameter accounts for the fact that some political accounts are more likely to be followed, due to the higher profile of the politicians behind them (for example, we would ex 4 If we considered not only politicians, but the entire Twitter network, then n = m. In that case, the model would still yield valid estimates, but the estimation would be computationally intractable and inefficient and, as I argue below, the resulting latent dimension might not be ideology. In this paper I show that it is possible to obtain valid ideal point estimates choosing a small m whose characteristics make following decisions informative about the ideology of users i and j. 5 I assume that ideology is unidimensional, which is a fairly standard assumption in the literature (e.g., see Poole and osenthal, 1997, 2007) However, the model I estimate could be generalized to multiple dimensions. 7
8 pect the probability of to be higher than the probability of following a random member of the US Congress) or for other reasons (politicians who tweet more o en are more likely to be highly visible and therefore also to have more followers). e latter measures the level of political interest of each user i. Similarly, this parameter accounts for the differences in the number of political accounts each user i decides to follow, which could be related to the overall number of Twitter users they follow, or their overall level of interest in politics. e probability that user i follows a political account j is then formulated as a logit model: P (y ij = 1 α j, β i, γ, θ i, ϕ j ) = logit 1 ( α j + β i γ θ i ϕ j 2) (1) Given that none of these parameters is directly observed, the statistical problem here is inference of θ = (θ i,..., θ n ), ϕ = (ϕ j,..., ϕ m ), α = (α j,..., α m ), β = (β i,..., β n ), and γ. Assuming local independence (individual decisions to follow are independent across users n and m, conditional on the estimated parameters), the likelihood function to maximize this model is as follows: p(y θ, ϕ, α, β, γ) = n m logit 1 (π ij ) y ij (1 logit 1 (π ij )) 1 y ij, (2) i=1 j=1 where π ij = α j + β i γ θ i ϕ j 2. Estimation and inference for this type of model is not trivial. Maximumlikelihood estimation methods are usually intractable given the large number of parameters involved. However, samples from the posterior density of each parameter in the model can be obtained using MarkovChain Monte Carlo methods. To improve the efficiency of this procedure, I use a Hamiltonian Monte Carlo algorithm (Gelman et al., 2013) and employ a hierarchical setup that considers each of the four sets of parameters as draws from four common population distributions: α j N(µ α, σ α ), 8
9 β j N(µ β, σ β ), θ i N(µ θ, σ θ ), and ϕ j s N(µ ϕ, σ ϕ ). e full joint posterior distribution is thus: p(θ, ϕ, α, β, γ y) p(θ, ϕ, α, β, γ, µ, σ) (3) n m logit 1 (π ij ) y ij (1 logit 1 (π ij )) 1 y ij i=1 j=1 m N(α j µ α, σ α ) n n m N(β i µ β, σ β ) N(θ i µ θ, σ θ ) N(ϕ j µ ϕ, σ ϕ ) j=1 i=1 i=1 j=1 2.4 Identification e model described by equation 1 is unidentified: any constant can be added to all the parameters θ i and ϕ j without changing the predictions of the model; and similarly θ i or ϕ j can be multiplied by any nonzero constant, with γ divided by its square, leaving the model predictions unchanged. ese indeterminacies, which are common to itemresponse theory models, are sometimes called additive aliasing and scaling invariance (see e.g. Bafumi et al., 2005 or Londregan, 1999). Existing studies on ideal point estimation employ two different strategies to identify the model. One is to apply two linearly independent restrictions on the ideal point parameters, θ or ϕ in this case. In particular, the usual procedure is to constrain the ideal points of two legislators (liberal and conservative) at arbitrary positions, such as 1 and +1 (see e.g. Londregan, 1999; Clinton, Jackman and ivers, 2004). An alternative is to apply a unit variance restriction on the set of ideal points, which in the multilevel setting would be equivalent to giving the θ i s or ϕ j s an informative N(0, 1) prior distribution (Gelman and Hill, 2007, p.318). However, note that this second approach does not solve the problem of reflection invariance : the resulting scale can be reversed (flipped le toright) without changing the prediction of the models. As Jackman (2001) shows, choosing starting values that are consistent with the expected direction of the scale (e.g. liberals with 1 and conservatives with +1) is sufficient to ensure global identification in most cases. As I show in the Supplementary Materials, either of these strategies can be applied in this case to resolve the indeterminacies. 9
10 2.5 MCMC algorithm To improve the efficiency of the estimation procedure, I divide it into two stages. First, I use a NoUTurn sampler, a variant of Hamiltonian Monte Carlo sampling algorithms (Gelman et al., 2013), to estimate the parameters indexed by j, using a random sample of 10,000 i users who follow at least 10 j users. In the second stage, I use a randomwalk MetropolisHastings algorithm (Metropolis et al., 1953) to estimate all parameters indexed by i. Note that each of these parameters can be estimated individually because I assume local independence, conditional on the j parameters, and therefore multicore processors can be used to run multiple samplers simultaneously and dramatically increase computation speed. 6 e first stage is implemented using the Stan modeling language (Stan evelopment Team, 2012), while the second stage is implemented using. I use flat priors on all parameters, with the exception of µ θ, σ θ, and µ α, which are fixed to 0, 1, and 0 respectively for identification purposes. e samplers in both stages are run using two chains with as many iterations as necessary to ensure that all ideology parameters have an effective number of simulation draws (Gelman and ubin, 1992) of at least 200. Each chain is initiated with random draws from a multivariate normal distribution for θ and γ, the logarithm of the number of followers of user j or number of friends of user i for α and β (to speed up convergence), and values of zero for ϕ, with the exception of those who belong to a party, 1 for le wing politicians and +1 for rightwing politicians. is model fitting strategy appears to be quite robust and my results are largely insensitive to the choice of priors and initial values iscussion A key challenge in implementing this method is the choice of the m target Twitter users who are political elites: the set of users with discriminatory predictive power such that the decision to 6 Samples from the i parameters in the second stage can be compared with those obtained for the random sample in the first stage to ensure that there were no errors in the estimation. In all the examples in this paper, the correlation between these two sets of estimates is ρ = See Section in the Supplementary Materials for the code to estimate the model in Stan, as well as results of a battery of tests that assess model fit. 10
11 follow them (or not) provides information about an individual s ideology. Following Conover et al. (2010), we could analyze the entire Twitter network and let the different clusters emerge naturally. However, homophilic networks can be based not only on political traits, but also on other personal characteristics. Instead, the approach I use is to select a limited number of target users that includes politicians, think tanks, and news outlets with a clear ideological profile that span the full range of the ideological spectrum. e set of users that are considered will determine the interpretation of the latent scale where ideal points are located and, for this reason, it is important to include identifiable figures with extreme ideological positions, beyond just partisans. 8 3 ata e estimation method I propose in this paper can be applied to any country where a high number of citizens are discussing politics on Twitter. 9 However, in order to test the validity of the estimated parameters, I will focus on six countries where highquality ideology measures are available for a subset of all Twitter users: the US, the UK, Spain, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. Furthermore, the increasing complexity of the party system in each of these countries will show how the method performs as the number of parties increases. For each of these countries, I identified a set of political actors with visible profiles on Twitter: 1) all political representatives in nationallevel institutions, 2) political parties with accounts on Twitter; and 3) media outlets and journalists who tweet about politics. I considered only political Twitter users with more than 5,000 (US) or 2,000 (UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands) followers. is represents a total of m = 318 target users in the US, m = 244 in the UK, m = Note that the model is agnostic regarding the interpretation of the latent dimension, which will depend on the set of m political actors that are considered. As I show in Section 4.1, the results from multiparty systems clearly show that this dimension overlaps with the le right scale. In the U.S., where partisanship and ideology are highly correlated, it is not as clear. However, the fact that Twitterbased ideal points are highly correlated with WNOMINATE scores (commonly thought to capture legislators ideology), and that statelevel estimates are better predictors of surveybased measures of ideology rather than partisanship also suggest that the estimated dimension is the liberalconservative scale. 9 Estimating ideal points using data from different countries simultaneously is more complex, given the high intracountry locality effect (Gonzalez et al., 2011), which limits the number of Twitter users who could serve as bridges across countries in the estimation. 11
12 in Spain, m = 214 in Italy, m = 273 in Germany, and m = 118 in the Netherlands. 10 Next, using the Twitter EST API, I obtained the entire list of followers for all m users in each country, resulting in a entire universe of Twitter users following at least one politician of n = 32,919,418 in the US, n = 2,647,413 in the UK, n = 1,059,890 in Spain, n =1,119,763 in Italy, n = 1,559,311 in Germany, and n = 856,201 in the Netherlands. 11 However, an extremely high proportion of these users are either inactive, spam bots or reside in different countries. To overcome this problem, I extracted the available personal attributes from each user s profile, and discarded from the sample those who 1) have sent fewer than 100 tweets, 2) have not sent one tweet in the past six months, 3) have less than 25 followers, 4) are located outside the borders of the country of interest, and 5) follow less than three political Twitter accounts. 12 e final sample size is n = 301,537 users in the US, n = 135,015 in the UK, n = 123,846 in Spain, n =150,143 in Italy, n = 49,142 in Germany, and n = 96,624 in the Netherlands. 13 is is a highly selfselected sample because Twitter users are not a representative sample of the population. 14 In addition, the inferences I make based on our sample won t represent the full set of Twitter users, as I am only selecting those users who follow three or more political accounts. However, this should not affect the inference of politicians ideal points, since these users can indeed be considered as authoritative when it comes to politics. Precisely because they are more likely to be knowledgeable and interested in politics than the average citizen, examining their online behavior can be highly informative about policy positions. is procedure is roughly analogous to an expert survey with many respondents where each respondent provides a small amount of information that, 10 See the Supplementary Materials for additional details on the data collection. Full replication files are available as Barberá (2014). 11 As of November 2012 in the US, Spain, the Netherlands, and the UK; February 2013 in Italy; August 2013 in Germany 12 In the U.S. sample, I further restricted the sample to accounts who tweeted at least three times mentioning Obama or omney during the three months before the 2012 election, in order to include only users who tweet frequently about politics. 13 Note that the sample selection process requires identifying the specific country from which each user tweets. is information was inferred from the time zone and location fields in the user profile, which was sufficient to identify the country of residence in 90% of the cases. is proportion is lower when we consider more specific geographical levels, such as state in the US (71%). 14 Table 1 in the Supplementary Materials shows that Twitter users in the U.S. tend to be younger and to have a higher income level than the average citizen, and their educational background and racial composition is different than that of the entire population. 12
13 when aggregated, results in highly accurate policy estimates. 4 esults and Validation In this section I provide a summary of the ideology estimates for the six countries included in my study. To validate the method, I will use different sources of external information to assess whether this procedure is able to correctly classify and scale Twitter users on the le or right side of the ideological dimension. My analysis is divided in three parts, with each of them providing a different type of evidence to the validation. e first part shows that Twitterbased ideal points replicate existing measures of ideology for elites (legislators and political parties) in six different countries. en, I validate mass ideology at the aggregate level by examining groups of Twitter users by selfidentified ideology and state of residence. Here I am also able to replicate previous findings in the literature about elite and mass polarization. Finally, I also validate mass ideology at the individual level using campaign contribution records and information about voters party registration history. 4.1 eplication of Legislators and Parties Ideal Points e first set of results I focus on are those from the United States. Figure 1 compares ϕ j, the ideal point estimates, of 231 members of the 112th U.S. Congress 15 based on their Twitter network of followers (y axis) with their WNOMINATE scores, 16 based on their rollcall voting records (Poole and osenthal, 2007), on the x axis. Each letter corresponds to a different member of Congress, where stands for emocrats and stands for epublicans, and the two panels split the sample according to the chamber of Congress to which they were elected. As we can see, the estimated ideal points are clustered in two different groups that align almost perfectly with party membership. e correlation between Twitter and rollcallbased ideal points 15 As explained in Section 3, only Twitter accounts with more than 5,000 followers as of November, 2012 are included in the sample. 16 Source: voteview.com 13
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